Sunday, November 1, 2015

Spin a Dark Web (1956)

Spin a Dark Web (the original British title was Soho Incident) is a fine example of the excellent mystery thriller B-movies the British film industry produced in such abundance from the late 40s up to the beginning of the 60s.

Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) had spent much of World War 2 in Britain while serving in the Signal Corps in the Canadian Army. Now he’s drifted back to England and hooked up with an old army buddy. The buddy thinks he can get Jim a job with Rico Francesi (Martin Benson). Francesi has a number of profitable enterprises going, none of them legal. That doesn’t bother Jim. He is tired of poverty and determined to escape from it and if that means being on the wrong side of the law that’s no a problem for him. Jim however is no thug. Criminal activities are one thing but he has no desire to get mixed up in any kind of violent crime.

The idea of having a telecommunications whizz-kid becoming involved with gangsters had been used in the excellent 1950 American film noir 711 Ocean Drive (although the storylines of the two films are otherwise quite dissimilar).

Jim’s experience in the Signal Corps gives Francesi an idea for what should turn out to be a profitable racetrack sting.

Jim has also attracted the attention of Francesi’s beautiful sister Bella (Faith Domergue). She’s not only beautiful but sophisticated and charming. And very dangerous, although Jim is not yet aware of the dangers she poses.

Everything seems to be going along rather nicely for our hero but there is a fly in the ointment. One of Francesi’s boys got a bit too enthusiastic when laying down the law to a prize fighter who had cost Francesi a lot of money by refusing to take a dive and this excess of enthusiasm had fatal results. As a consequence the police are now taking a rather close interest in Francesi’s operations.

It was quite common in the 50s for British film producers to import second-string American stars for lead roles in low-budget crime pictures. Lee Patterson does not however fall into this category. He was born in Canada but based himself in England until the end of the 50s and had quite a considerable career in the British film industry as a B-movie leading man. All his leading roles were in B-pictures but they were often remarkably good - he seemed to have a knack for landing good parts in very decent movies such as The Flying Scot and Deadly Record. Part of the reason he got pretty good roles was that he happened to be a fine actor and also happened to be absolutely perfect for mystery thrillers with a film noir tinge. He could be tough but very likeable at the same time making him ideal as a film noir-style protagonist. His performance in Spin a Dark Web is typically solid and impressive. Jim Bankley is an over-confident young man possessed of flexible ethics but he’s really a nice guy. Too nice to be getting involved with serious criminals.

American Faith Domergue had seemed destined for stardom after attracting the attention of Howard Hughes. Although the romance did not last Hughes did initially push her film career. After a couple of lead roles in movies like the underrated Where Danger Lives her career began to falter. In the mid-50s she made a couple of films in Britain - the excellent sci-fi thriller Timeslip and Spin a Dark Web. She’s an actress who should have had a much better career and in this film her performance is very effective - she’s a femme fatale but a subtle femme fatale. Bella is also a somewhat up-market femme fatale. 

Rico Francesi is an interesting villain. He’s actually not particularly evil. Certainly he’s as crooked as they come but violence is not really his line. A bit of mild strong-arm stuff might be necessary on occasions but he prefers to rely on the threat of aggravation rather than the reality. Unfortunately his employees aren’t always as subtle and as sensible, even though Francesi does his best to persuade them to avoid any excesses in that area.

Bella Francesi has fewer scruples than her brother when it comes to violence. In fact she has no scruples at all.

The screenplay is by Ian Stuart Black, who went on to a successful career as a writer for some of the more interesting television series of the 60s such as Danger Man, The Man in Room 17, Adam Adamant Lives! and The Champions. What could have been a routine plot is enlivened by a couple of unexpected touches.

Vernon Sewell was a reliable B-feature director and he does a perfectly competent job here.

Just as interesting as the story are the glimpses of the slightly seedy but slightly flashy side of London in the 50s - the fleshpots of Soho, espresso bars, the tawdry glamour of dog racing tracks. This atmospheric location shooting combines with a fair number of night scenes to give the film a very definite film noir feel.

The plot itself certainly leans towards noir, with Jim Bankley being a man who discovers that being a fairly nice guy with flexible ethical standards can get you into a lot of trouble, and getting emotionally involved with a gangster’s sister can get you into even worse hot water.

Spin a Dark Web is available as a made-on-demand DVD in Sony’s Choice Collection. The transfer is anamorphic and very satisfactory. There are no extras.

Spin a Dark Web is very much a B-picture but it has genuine film noir atmosphere, good performances and a serviceable if not wildly original plot. This all adds up to a pretty entertaining package. Recommended.

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